Learning the Liberal Arts through Service

Service Learning in General Education Humanities Courses

By Sheila Cordner, Boston University


Relentless about pursuing his education, Thomas Hardy’s eponymous hero in Jude the Obscure conjures up a way to study the dictionary while driving a cart selling baked goods, “fixing open” the book “by means of a strap attached to the tilt” (Hardy, 1999, p. 28). In the introductory Humanities courses for non-majors I teach at Boston University, I try to encourage my students to become more like Jude, who insists on living the life of the mind.

Since many of my students enter the course skeptical about whether the Humanities play an important role in their own lives—or an important role in society—I often make this one of our central course questions: what role(s) do the Humanities play in society? This question helps to give the survey course I teach—on literature from the nineteenth century to the present with art history and film components—a more cohesive theme. During the first half of the semester, students study how audiences have responded to works of Humanities at different moments in history, and how this changes over time. As students approach the course’s conclusion, the service-learning projects—which allow them to put the texts discussed in class in a real-world situation—give them an opportunity to reflect on how audiences today respond to works of Humanities. In their feedback about the assignment, students explain the ways that the project “opened [their] eyes to how far the Humanities reach.” I will share how the service-learning project and related written reflection contributes to opening students’ eyes about the value of the Humanities.

While there are many helpful definitions of service learning, I use the definition recently put forth by Laurie Grobman and Roberta Rosenberg: “service learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service, in many and diverse forms, with classroom instruction, textual study, literary theory, student writing, and reflection” (Grobman and Rosenberg 1). Although in the past, service learning has been more common in professional and occupational fields, I agree with Scott Seider and Jason Taylor that service learning “can play an equal role, and perhaps even a larger one, in humanistic disciplines … In order to thrive, these fields need to demonstrate their relevance to a new generation of young adults, and community service learning represents an important vehicle for doing so” (Seider and Taylor 211). The recent work by Grobman and Rosenberg, as well as by Kristin Lucas and Pavlina Radia, offer insight into the value of service learning in the Humanities, explaining why service learning is gaining traction specifically in English studies.

Overview of Assigned Projects

In my courses at Boston University, I give students a choice of several service-learning projects, which they can choose based on their interests and schedules. In the Spring 2017 semester, they participated in the Prison Book Program; led a discussion of Dickens at Hale House, a nonprofit nursing home in Boston; and facilitated a discussion of Impressionist Art at the Boston Public Library’s Adult ESL Conversation Circle.

At the Prison Book Program, which sends books to people in prisons across the United States, students read letters from prisoners, select books from the program’s book room that best match the prisoners’ requests, and package the books to send. Some prisoners request works by classic authors covered in class such as Dickens or Melville. Others ask for popular fiction and religious books; many request educational materials, self-help and how-to books, and dictionaries. My students pointed out that the prisoners seemed to rely on books not just for entertainment but for “survival” because it was often their only contact with the outside world. Many of the students remarked on how this made them realize that they take books for granted.

For the Dickens discussion at Hale House, my students brainstormed topics that might appeal to the diverse population of residents, in consultation with the nursing home’s Activities Director and with me. After deciding on the topic of “Dickens,” my students developed discussion questions and ideas from our course lectures and discussions to share with the residents, and I served as the liaison between the students and the nursing home’s Activities Director. On the day of the discussion, we met in the living room of the home, and the ten residents and ten students sat in a large circle. My students asked the residents if they were familiar with Dickens; what they remember learning about Dickens; and in what ways they had encountered his work.

Many of my students were surprised that everyone was familiar with Dickens and still thought he was very important, including one resident who remembered reading Great Expectations sixty years ago, and another resident who immediately quoted lines from Oliver Twist. The students shared material they had learned from the course such as Dickens’s critique of rote learning and his depiction of industrialization in Hard Times. The students then asked the residents why they thought Dickens’s legacy is so strong today. One resident, for example, explained how she grew up in poverty and argued that Dickens’ depiction of the tough circumstances of his working-class characters can be considered universally relatable.

Since the Humanities course I teach incorporates an art history component, another group was assigned to lead a discussion of Impressionist Art at the Adult ESL Conversation Circle at the Boston Public Library. In preparation for the discussion, the ten students decided to divide themselves into pairs; each pair prepared a slide that contained one Impressionist painting along with information about the painting as well as a description of what appealed to each student personally about it. At the Boston Public Library discussion, they presented paintings such as Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” and Auguste Renoir’s “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette” and then broke off into smaller groups for further discussion. For Renoir’s painting, for example, the Humanities students gave some biographical background on Renoir and analyzed his style, but also commented on how the depiction of people socializing made them feel happy. This opened up a discussion in which many of the participants shared what emotions the paintings evoked for them. In the last portion of the program, the students and participants from countries such as China and Thailand came together as a large group and discussed how the study of art—and the Humanities more generally—is under debate.

Past projects have included discussions of Langston Hughes or the literature of war at nursing homes in Boston; screenings and conversations about American films such as “The Searchers” and the Western genre with international students; and workshops for youth at 826 Boston and Boston Public Schools.

Simple Logistics

The image of Jude reading a book while driving a cart is inspiring as well as simple. One of the most important features of the service-learning projects I assign is the simplicity of the logistics. Unlike other service-learning projects, this assignment requires that students make a one-time visit to their project site. Because of this, I have found that the project can be portable. I have modified it for a variety of classes since 2009, including the gateway course to the English major, a World Literature course, and an introductory poetry course.

Before the project begins, I facilitate a discussion of the differences between “community service” and “service learning.” The project has straightforward requirements: 1) Participate with a group in one of the service projects, 2) Report back to the rest of the class—through a film or group presentation—on the experience of doing the service project, and 3) Write a reflection relating the experience to course content and class discussions.

In the process of developing these projects with a one-time site visit, I have found that it is important for me to build ongoing partnerships with organizations. Even though I only send one group of students to an organization one time in any semester, I have developed a continuous relationship with the organizations and grow increasingly aware of what we can do to benefit them. I often invite successful students from previous classes to come talk to my current students about what has worked well in the past and to further inform them about the population of people with which they will be partnering. Some of my former students have continued visiting the programs in which they participated.

Student Reflection

Through their written reflections, I witness students’ realization that their own education, like Jude’s, extends beyond the walls of our classroom. In my assessment, I paid particular attention to the ways students gained a more in-depth understanding of the course material and the ways that these non-majors acquired more insight into the value of the Humanities. Although initially I thought I would assess these two areas separately, what I noticed in the written reflections was that students’ understanding of course material was closely linked to developing a more in-depth understanding of the value of Humanities. Gaining a deeper understanding of Humanities’ value paved the way for a more nuanced understanding of course themes and texts.

I observed a deepened understanding of course themes and texts in students’ reflection papers. Participants in the Prison Book Program gained more understanding of the roles that literature plays in our society—something we had been discussing all semester. One student commented that through the project, he “could see the purpose of Humanities (to raise awareness, to distract, to delight, to teach) being put into action.” Students made insightful connections to specific course texts—including poetry ranging from Phillis Wheatley to William Wordsworth—and often incorporated quotations and ideas with more ease than in previous writing assignments. Many student participants in the Dickens project connected the discussion to Dickens’s exploration of education in Hard Times, especially after hearing some of the residents discuss their own education in terms of rote learning. Through the discussion of Dickens, students came away with a fuller understanding of his influence. “This opportunity to get out of the classroom,” a student writes, “and hear about the impact Dickens had on people’s lives decades ago and compare it to the way Dickens is impacting students’ lives today was an incredible experience.”

In addition to the more in-depth understanding of course themes and texts—as well as an understanding of the value of the Humanities—students gained insight into their own privilege. For the Prison Book Program group, many of the students were struck by how the prisoners, who “don’t get the luxury of having a library filled with books and have a very limited exposure to literature” were so excited to get just one book, reminding them of their own privilege as students with unlimited access to university libraries as well as the Internet. “Reading letters from the prisoners,” one student writes, “really showed me the true value of literature in people’s lives.” Other comments reflected this realization about privilege, such as “working with the Prison Book Program made me look at books and literature as a privilege” and “it was only when I read these letters that I was able to understand how important it is to have access to literature. I take this for granted because my access is almost limitless.”

At a time when many students enter a Humanities survey course with skepticism about how this material relates to their academic, professional, and personal lives, these projects help them leave with a sense of how others have depended on the Humanities in their lifelong learning. They begin to understand how a liberal arts education contributes to their education as individuals in society. When I read the students’ reflection papers, they remind me how the Humanities can bring together people of different generations, classes, races, genders, sexualities, and nationalities. Ultimately the projects help students realize the connections between the required Humanities general education course and their own lives. These experiences remind my students that there exists no barrier between their studies on campus and the learning that happens—like Jude’s—outside of university walls.